Wednesday, 23 December 2015


Magic in the Not Quite Longest Night of the Year

Sunday night Ann and I attended a Christmas party in the neighbourhood, one that’s been thrown some 25 years running. The talk throughout the house this year was of grown children, grandchildren, retirement plans, all-inclusive holidays in hot Third World places, bad knees and hip replacements. We thanked our hosts and then slipped away a little after 10 o’clock. We swiped back a couple of the beers we’d brought which we’d left to chill on their rear deck. We walked home through the curving back lane, smoking and sipping from our tins, the snow squeaking beneath the soles of our boots in the cold. Brrr.

Ann said, ‘Look up.’ I saw the pale yellow half moon in the navy sky. ‘No, the other way.’ Wow. Two, no three, no two massive columns of blazing emerald green light danced like the stilts of Atlas in some kind of cosmic street performance. The spectacle easily trumped the synth-synched lasers at a Who concert. We watched the great mantis legs dissolve and then reassemble themselves within seconds into a rippling ribbon that arced across the night sky into infinities beyond the boundaries of a compass rose.

We stood transfixed as our beers gelled into 7-11 adult Slurpees. We reminded each other not to lick our tins. Ann said that she couldn’t remember what caused the northern lights. I tried to think. Colour is a function of light. Light is made of particles, photons. ‘I think,’ I ventured, ‘white light hits the polar ice and is reflected back into the atmosphere which acts as a sort of cut crystal or prism or something. Like the cover of that Pink Floyd album.’ There, that sounded pretty authoritative for somebody who’s often uncertain of the colour of the sky in his own little world. ‘Green’s somewhere in the middle of the visible spectrum.’ I recalled overseeing the production of elaborate marketing materials and a few seasons’ worth of player cards for the Seattle SuperSonics and added, ‘It’s a bastard colour to print.’

Later I stood outside shivering on the front porch hoping for an encore aurora. Instead I heard the deep who-whoo hoot of Alberta’s provincial bird, the great horned owl. It was very close, almost overhead. I did a quick mental inventory of the cats: the tabbies were inside curled up asleep after figuring out that the paw quivering cold out the back door also existed out the front door. I called Ann outside to listen too. Tingling from the sound and hoping for another sighted tick mark in our Birds of Edmonton book (last summer I spotted a bald eagle), I went down the steps to the driveway and peered up at the midnight blue seeking a black silhouette. The who-whoo-ing faded, the creature had flown and was evidently now hovering somewhere above the nearby woody river valley.

We went back inside to shiver ourselves warm. And like a cat I went back outside again. I opened a beer and reminded myself not to lick the tin. I lit a cigarette and watched the grey smoke congeal before my eyes. Oh, the mystical night sights and sounds in a freezing winter city can be marvelous. A Van Morrison lyric replayed on a loop in my head: ‘And didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder.’

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